HARTFORD, Conn. – From near oblivion to a Big East Conference title. That’s the inspiring resurgence of the University of Connecticut men’s golf program, which was among those considered for elimination less than a year ago and then won the Big East title last week to earn the conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
The Huskies faced elimination when the department of athletics needed to cut its budget by 25 percent, a situation made more dire by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It had nothing to do with me keeping my job,” coach Dave Pezzino told The Hartford Courant. “I knew I would be fine. My responsibility was to the young men who played for me and were going to play for me. I had 80 years of college golf on my shoulders. Our alumni and players’ parents, everyone was so amazing and loving to our kids and our program. I don’t know if I’ll be able to catch up and thank everybody properly for what we just did.”
A group of former UConn golfers conferred with Pezzino and organized a campaign to raise funds to save the program. Leaders of the group included John Bierkan, the Director of Instruction at the famed Aronimink Golf Club in Newtown Square, Pa., and Old Marsh Golf Club in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., in the winter. Bierkan is the son of Dick Bierkan, the former pro at Lyman Orchards Golf Club in Middlefield for 48 years, who was rated one of America’s Best Young Teachers from 2010-17 by Golf Digest. He also has been recognized by U.S. Kids Golf as one of the top 50 Kids Coaches in America and named the Philadelphia PGA Teacher of the Year in 2014 and 2018.
“We started getting an alumni list together and started reaching out to our immediate teammates,” said John Bierkan, who played at UConn in 1997-2000. “Then branching out to others we knew and ask them to branch out, and we ended up going back four or five decades, all the way to some guys who just graduated in the last four or five years. We just kept spreading that web.”
The group grew to 126 individuals, who donated what they could, some as little as $50 a year for five years. They set a goal of about $200,000 but “blew that out of the water,” Bierkan said. They surpassed $700,000, and pledges approached $1 million when they were finished.
“I never wanted it to be adversarial, where it was the coach against the Board of Trustees,” Pezzino said. “This thing wasn’t personal; it was real-world stuff that many people had to try to figure out. I wanted to be a positive part of the solution. It was never us against UConn.”
Last June, UConn did cut men’s cross country, men’s swimming and diving, men’s tennis and women’s rowing, which is fighting the decision in the courts. Men’s golf survived, though the program lost its assistant coach and one scholarship.
There was no fall season due to the pandemic, but the Huskies won twice and finished second once in nine events before prevailing in the conference championship. They were led by freshman Jimmy Paradise of Tampa, Fla., who had six birdies in a closing 4-under-par 68 that matched his collegiate best and enabled him to leap from 12th to third at 2-under 214 for 54 holes at Streamsong Resort in Bowling Green, Fla.
UConn, which held off a challenge by defending champion Marquette to beat the Golden Eagles by six strokes, won the Big East tournament in 1994 during its time in the original conference. The program’s previous appearances in the NCAA Regionals were 1964, 1979, 1980, 1993 and 1997-99.
“This is what we were working for all last year and this year,” said freshman Caleb Manuel, who finished fourth at 215. “It was a big release, just tapping in the par putt at 18 and having the guys come off the green. It was something I’d always dreamed of playing college golf.”
Jared Nelson finished ninth at 217 as all five UConn golfers were in the top 30 while shooting a team score of 5-over 869. Senior Rodrigo Sanchez tied for 18th at 224, and freshman Tommy Dallahan, a graduate of Avon Old Farms from Simsbury, tied for 30th at 229. Butler’s Michael Cascino and Marquette’s Hunter Eichhorn tied for medalist honors at 209, and Cascino earned a trip to NCAA play by winning a three-hole, sudden-death playoff.
“(Winning) just made me happy and made me think of Coach and those young men … the opportunity it gave them to not only compete this year, but win that Big East championship was awesome,” Bierkan said. “We can’t forget why collegiate athletics was implemented in the first place. That’s why I’m so happy and proud that the golf team has sustained itself for what athletics is supposed to do for individuals: to learn teamwork and hard work and to be able to respond from adversity and from loss.”
NCAA Regional competition will be held May 17-19 at six sites, with the top five teams from each regional and low individual not on an advancing team advancing to the NCAA National Championships on May 28-May 2 at Grayhawk Golf Club in Scottsdale, Ariz.